Good liars avoid answering questions

By Amy Middleton 24 September 2010
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Liars and truth-tellers both have pauses in their speech, but good liars avoid answering questions, scientists say.

DESPITE WHAT YOU MIGHT think, it is almost impossible to tell a liar from the way they talk, according a new study.

Pauses, stutters, ums and ahs in a person’s speech were thought to signify a lie – an indication that a person was making up a story on the go. But such ‘filled pauses’ are just as common in truthful conversations, say researchers from the University of Queensland.

The study, to be published in an upcoming issue of the British Journal of Social Psychology, showed that people only lie in response to questions under pressure, rather than initiating a porky. “People never lie in impromptu statements,” says lead researcher Edward Reynolds. “You’re generally lying to get out of trouble, and you do that with answers to questions.”

Successful lying, then, Edward says, comes from avoiding questions. “It’s virtually impossible, I think, to train yourself to become a good liar,” he says. “It is possible, however, to train yourself to become a good evader. If you don’t answer the question, you don’t have to lie; you might see examples of that on Lateline most nights of the week.”

Lying under pressure

Edward studied the speech patterns of people in the reality television programs Cops and The Jeremy Kyle Show, both of which contain footage of subjects who have reason to lie – either to get out of trouble with the police or, in the latter instance, in a to avoid confrontation with partners and family in a talk-show setting.

People in the shows used filled pauses just as much in their truthful statements as when they lied, a finding that bucks conventional wisdom of how such cues are taken for tell-tales of lying, says Edward. “Restarts, for instance, are used to get attention, [rather than lying],” he says. “When someone says something and the listener isn’t attending, they will often restart the utterance.”

Professor Mara Olekalns, an expert on negotiation at Melbourne Business School, believes it is possible improve lying techniques; however, there are physiological giveaways that are beyond our control, she adds. These include cues such as pupil dilation and facial responses known as ‘micro expressions’.

“One cue is that people’s faces reveal their true thoughts and feelings for a couple of microseconds before they can arrange their face to show what they want,” she says. Mara believes that while there is only a small number of tell-tales associated with deception, Edward’s research may well have debunked one theory, specifically in relation to verbal cues.

Successful liars add depth

Experts, like police, look at the overall behaviour of the person being interviewed. For instance, says Edward, if an interrogator can see that emotions are stirred up by a particular topic, they will probe further to catch them in a lie.

Other cues, such as a raised, higher-pitched voice and increased hand gestures may also be signs of lying. Mara also cites a lack of depth in the response as an indicator of lying. “If you’re going to lie, you need to have planned it thoroughly, so there is some depth to what you are saying,” she says.

Edward’s next task is to study liars in natural settings. “There are bad liars out there,” he says. “There are people that give away when they’re lying. I want to find out what they’re doing wrong.”